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Friday, 31 January 2014

Vladimir Nabokov's lecture on Mansfield Park

Reading "Lectures on Literature" by Vladimir Nabokov.

1/ "Mansfield Park" is not "a violently vivid masterpiece". Nabokov is right, "novels like "Madame Bovary" or "Anna Karenina" are delightful explosions admirably controlled" and this one isn't.
Her works are never shocking, never overwhelming, never challenging, never haunting, and not always engrossing. 
Then he says ""Mansfield Park", on the other hand, is the work of a lady and the game of a child. But from that workbasket comes exquisite needlework art, and there is a streak marvelous genius in that child." 
As a woman, I found this line a bit hard to digest, let alone saw it as a some sort of praise. However, to ignore the slight streak of the sexist in Nabokov, I can see his point of view, and will come back to this at the end of the post.

2/ He says "there is in Jane Austen a slight streak of the philistine. This philistinism is obvious in her preoccupation with incomes and in her rational approach to romance and nature."
I wouldn't use this word. To me, she's rational and realistic, strictly realistic. Or maybe that's it, she's not particularly poetic.

3/ "Every sentence in these introductory pages is terse and tapered to a fine point."

4/ Nabokov analyses how the author introduces certain events to have the story move on: Mr Norris's death brings the arrival of the Grants, which in turns leads to the arrival of the young Crawfords, then Jane Austen removes Sir Thomas from Mansfield park for the young people to overindulge their freedom and brings him back "at the height of the mild orgy".
He also writes "Nobody in "Mansfield Park" dies in the arms of the author and reader, as people do in Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy. The deaths in "Mansfield Park" happen somewhere behind the scenes and excite little emotion. These dull deaths have, however, a curiously strong influence on the development of plot". Eg: the deaths of Mr Norris, a horse, a clergyman, Dr Grant, a dowager and Mary Price. He calls these functional deaths.
I must admit that I did not see these devices. Obviously an author sees things that may escape an ordinary reader's notice. Jane Austen is known for not dwelling on suffering and misery, but now I start to feel that the characters not only die "offstage" but most of the deaths are merely functional deaths.

5/ Nabokov does help me understand why Fanny disapproves of the play. "There is no reason to suppose that Jane Austen's sentiments do not parallel Fanny's. The point is, however, not that the play itself, as a play, is to be condemned as immoral but that it is suitable only for a professional theatre and actors and most improper for the Bertram circle to act."
He also thinks "And she is quite right. There is something obscene in Amelia's part."
This is an important point- in order to understand the characters in "Mansfield Park" one should know something about the play "Lovers' Vows" and should try to understand the mindset of the gentlefolk in Britain in the 18th, 19th centuries. Many people are too quick to call Fanny a prig. 

6/ "Henry Crawford shows a devilish cunning in steering himself and Maria into the right parts", meaning Frederick and Agatha, so they constantly stay together and embrace each other.
My thought is like no.5. 

7/ He compares Fanny to Cinderella, and notes that the figure is also found commonly in literature. 
Fanny, indeed, is not an original figure- what he doesn't see is that Jane Austen does something remarkable in creating Henry Crawford, who is used to shatter the bad boy ideal in literature and in real life, and in creating Mary Crawford, who is the author's reaction to her own heroine in the previous book.

8/ "Miss Crawford's style is superficially elegant but trite and trivial if studied closely. It is full of grateful clichés, like the hope for Fanny's "sweetest smiles", for Fanny was not that type."
Then he goes on to say that Fanny's general style "has elements of force, purity, and precision."
The key to seeing Jane Austen's talent is to keep close attention to the language and see how a character's speech reveals their personality and character. Nabokov's genius, on the other hand, is too easy to see. 

9/ "The whole scene, Sir Thomas's talk with Fanny in the East room, chapter 32, is admirable, 1 of the best in the novel".
"Mansfield Park" has lots of well-written parts, and I agree, this part is magnificent. 

10/ "Many readers, especially feminine readers, can never forgive subtle and sensitive Fanny for loving such a dull fellow as Edmund, but I can only repeat that the worst way to read a book is childishly to mix with the characters in it as if they were living people. Actually, of course, we often hear of sensitive girls faithfully in love with bores and prigs. Yet it must be said that Edmund, after all, is a good, honest, well-mannered, kind person. So much for the human interest of the thing."
What Nabokov apparently doesn't expect is that lots of readers hate Fanny and prefer Mary Crawford and, because of that, dislike "Mansfield Park". 

11/ "Here and elsewhere, there is an intimation that if Edmund had married Mary and if Henry had persevered in his tenderness and good behaviour, Fanny would have married him after all."
I disagree. It would be unconvincing if she didn't once in a while waver, but as said before, I think Fanny rejects Henry more because of his unreliability than because of her love for Edmund. 

12/ Nabokov thinks Edmund's slowness to propose to Mary "becomes something of a farce".
I don't find it unnatural. Edmund's uncertain because, even though love is blind, he does see some parts of Mary's character and feels uneasy about it. 

13/ "Miss Austen would have had to write practically another volume of 500 pages if she had wished to narrate those elopements in the same direct and detailed form as she had done in relating the games and flirtations at Mansfield park before Fanny left for Portsmouth. The epistolary form has helped to prop up the structure of the novel at this point, but there is no doubt that too much has happened behind the scenes and that this letter-writing business is a shortcut of no very great artistic merit."
This, in my opinion, is not a fault. Most of the book is seen from Fanny's perspective in spite of the 3rd-person point of view, and around this time focuses on Fanny being with her family. Jane Austen creates suspense by concealing everything from Fanny and from the readers before Mary sends the letter about a rumour about which Fanny knows nothing. Above all, through the correspondences, the true characters of some characters are exposed, the loss of which would do harm to the novel, and the coexistence of the letters with the detailed narrative would be redundant.
I have used similar arguments for the last part of "Sense and Sensibility".

14/ "It is quite a shock to come to loud-speaking, flushed, robust Dickens after meeting delicate, dainty, pale Jane."
I do not read Nabokov's lecture on "Bleak House" because I haven't read this book. The sentence gives me the impression that he prefers Dickens. I must say many of Dickens's characters are more like caricatures, not as natural and realistic as Jane Austen's, but then again, he produces some awesome characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge. 

15/ "The whole novel resembles a play".
In what sense? Dialogue, characterisation through dialogue?
Anyhow, it's not without reason that she's called "the prose Shakespeare". 

16/ "Another element is what I call the epigrammatic intonation, a certain terse rhythm is terse and tender, dry and yet musical, pithy but limpid and light.
[...] Style like this is not Austen's invention, nor is it even an English invention: I suspect it really comes from French literature where it is profusely represented in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Austen did not read French but got the epigrammatic rhythm from the pert, precise, and polished kind of style which was the fashion. Nevertheless, she handles it to perfection."
Another praise. I like that: "handles it to perfection".

The next point is from his lecture on Charles Dickens's "Bleak House":
17/ After saying that he (and his students) "did have some degree of fun with her delicate patterns, with her collection of eggshells in cotton wool", Nabokov says "the fun was forced. We had to slip into a certain mood; we had to focus our eyes in a certain way. Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts, but I have often forced myself to see some bit of precious translucent china through the eyes of an expert and have discovered a vicarious bliss in the process."
Then "Let us not forget that there are people who have devoted to Jane all their lives, their ivy-clad lives. I am sure that some readers have a better ear for Miss Austen than I have. However, I have tried to be very objective..."
I suppose that's what happened- the 1st time reading "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility" I found no pleasure and later must have slipped into a certain mood to see what's hidden underneath all the tediousness and small talk and other trifles, and once having got the right mindset, no longer had any problem with the later works. 
A few months ago, having acknowledged her talent, I myself opposed a guy's claim that Jane Austen may be the greatest novelist of all time. I think, not few people feel some kind of ambivalence towards her, as on the 1 hand one sees how masterful she is within her limitations and self-imposed boundaries, how well she handles her characters and gives each of them a voice, on the other hand one cannot help seeing how little and confined her world is and that lots of topics are avoided and pushed away- Jane Austen might be called the most perfect novelist (which I'm not even sure of), not the greatest one. 
Nabokov's attitude does not surprise. I was more baffled before when thinking that the genius author of "Lolita" and "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight", the arrogant man of strong opinions, could have liked Jane Austen, though it would have been better if Nabokov had read some other of her novels, which I believe he didn't do. Her works are better seen in relation with each other.  

Update on 1/2/2014: 
The introduction by John Updike reminds me that before "Mansfield Park" Nabokov had read "Pride and Prejudice" and disliked Jane Austen.
I think, "Pride and Prejudice" should not be read 1st, especially when one has had some prejudices against Jane Austen. If you love it, chances are, you'll always love it and perhaps more than any of her novels. If you hate it, chances are, that will push you away and always make you have a very odious impression of the author. 

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